The recent history of the the Portland Trail Blazers vs. Detroit Pistons series has not been kind to Portland. The Blazers do not lack talent. Their guards fare well against the Pistons; their outside shooting gives them a natural advantage. But Pistons center Andre Drummond might as well be Andre the Giant every time Portland arrives at the arena. Frequently he throws Portland centers over the top rope on his way to 35 and 18...an uncontrollable nightmare.
Except tonight, that didn’t happen.
Newly-acquired and sizable center Jusuf Nurkić stood up to Drummond like Big John Studd, forcing him away from the bucket into difficult shots and at least semi-contested rebounds. Drummond wasn’t neutralized but he wasn’t the usual One Man Gang knocking apart Portland’s game plan either.
Add in a near triple-double from Damian Lillard and it looked like this would be the night the Blazers got past their Pistons problem to earn a win. But if finding ways to lose games was a mystery, the Trail Blazers would be Encyclopedia Brown. Even as Nurkić held down Drummond, even as Lillard flirted with the record book, even as the Blazers got everything they ever prayed for out of their offense, Detroit forward Marcus Morris put up a career-high 37 points over shorter defenders playing bad screen defense.
As a result of Morris; heroics the Blazers gave up a 14-point lead, got caught, and had to settled for a tie score at the end of regulation. Predictably, the extra period was not kind. The Blazers carried a 120-113 loss out of the Motor City, sputtering to the end of a 1-3 road trip with a 24-35 record overall.
The opening quarter of this game belonged to Jusuf Nurkić. When compared to Andre Drummond his physique is Pillsbury Dough Boy but his heart was pure Lion King. In the opening minutes Nurkić bumped, jumped, and blocked shots with abandon, including one from Drummond himself. With the middle held down, Portland’s remaining four defenders had little problem keeping up with their counterparts. After years of center dominance the Pistons’ expressions resembled the Superfriends watching their indestructible linchpin felled by Bosnian kryptonite. Detroit didn’t hit double digits on the scoreboard until the 3:30 mark of the first and shot under 30% in the frame. Portland blasted them with 50%+ shooting while Lillard got a start on a potential triple-double with 5 rebounds and 4 assists. The Blazers led 27-19 after one.
Foreshadowing of doom started to creep into the narrative in the second period as Portland’s bench found themselves unable to produce enough points to keep their threat credible. They weren’t bad but they weren’t dominant like the starters had been. The Blazers defense also showed cracks, remaining sharp at the rim and the three-point arc but falling behind off of screens in the mid-range. Detroit’s aim varied but their shots were open enough to cause concern. Lillard and CJ McCollum made up for the lack on the offensive end when they checked in for their second shift and all seemed well, but Portland’s halftime lead trickled down to 49-44.
The Blazers came out with basically the same game plan to start the second half that they employed at the outset: take down Drummond, don’t let Detroit’s guards get free, cruise to victory. The Pistons nodded, then made a left turn going more Morrissey than a vintage 90’s mix tape. In this case the “Morris” was Marcus, a 6’9” forward with a face-up and post game. In the second half he showed the Blazers that their shiny new center may be nice, but they still don’t have any forwards who can guard him. Morris spent the rest of the game splashing shots from mid-range and distance, exploiting Portland’s lack of height and unwillingness to deal with screens any better than your average housefly.
Putting it in perspective: Without Marcus Morris the Pistons would have managed only two field goals for 5 points in the third period. Add in a few free throws and maybe they get to 12 or 15 overall. Behind Morris they cruised to 31. Ouch.
Lillard staved off disaster with a scoring tantrum of his own but Portland’s lead remained insecure, 79-75, heading into the fourth.
Insecurity turned into a full-blown meltdown in the final period. By this time Nurkić was showing signs of fatigue. Like a Death Star clearing the horizon, Drummond began to zero in on the middle of the lane. The Blazers tried to keep extra players in his vicinity but this allowed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith to break free from their game-long doldrums. Portland got obliterated on screens time and again with no big-man help in sight.
Lillard tried his best to keep his team afloat, hitting three layups, a triple, a jumper, free throws...anything he could do to put points on the board. After Portland lost the lead his layup with 2 seconds remaining tied the score and sent the game into overtime. Ironically he had missed a technical free throw just 8 seconds earlier that would have made that closing shot the game-winner. Instead the teams stood knotted at 109 heading to the extra period.
Overtime wasn’t even close. The Morris dancing continued as Marcus pulled out Me Ol’ Bamboo and smacked the Blazers over the head with it while Smith accompanied. Portland watched the display with Black Adder-level horror, their defense resembling one of Baldrick’s cunning plans. On the other end Portland got multiple attempts inside but could only covert one, a layup from Maurice Harkless. Everything came up short, an appropriate metaphor to end the game. The 120-113 Detroit victory gave an anticlimactic feeling to what could have been a stirring affair.
Credit where it’s due: Jusuf Nurkić did his job. He didn’t have to best Drummond. Holding him down for a while so his teammates could beat up the rest of the Pistons was enough. He did that well enough. It’s been a while since Portland has been able to stick with decent opposing centers. Maybe the position won’t be such an Achilles Heel anymore. That said, Nurkic did tire and his effectiveness waned. Part of that is conditioning. Part of it might be watching his teammates blow coverage by such a wide margin that a center half his weight and twice his speed couldn’t compensate fast enough. Nurk looked a little grumpy out there for a while, as if he knew his effort was getting wasted.
More credit where it’s even more due: Damian Lillard did everything he could to pull this one out. His 34 points led the team. They weren’t cheap, either; he shot 53% from the field, 38% from the arc. Lillard also grabbed 11 rebounds. If his teammates weren’t laying every shot off the rim in the final period he would have managed 10 assists instead of 9 and claimed his first career triple-double.
The Blazers shot well tonight: 52% from the field, 40% from the arc. They held Detroit to 43%, 28% from distance. McCollum and Allen Crabbe combined for 38 points on 63% shooting in support. Portland held sway, or at least broke even, in all the big statistical categories...even points in the paint and overall rebounds. Everything obvious went right. But the devil’s in the details.
- The Blazers committed a shocking 24 turnovers while only forcing 7.
- Portland shot 15-22, 68% from the foul line.
- After a good start the Blazers got doubled up in offensive rebounds 16-8.
Portland might have survived all of that, but... like the little kid sticking his finger in the dam to hold back the water, every time the Blazers covered a defensive leak, two more appeared. They held back Drummond then stretched out to cover the guards. They bottled up the guards too, but then they were spread too thin and Morris killed them. When Morris broke through, the entire structure started to crumble. At that point Lillard’s scoring amounted to treading water and they were going down.
Watching the Blazers lose because they can’t defend a guard or center is common. Losing because they can’t defend a forward when their main defensive strength lies precisely at that position tells a new, and more disturbing, story. Morris has hurt them before but usually in context of an overall offensive attack, not as the singular facet of it. Put another way: If Marcus Morris is going to do this to them, who won’t?
That lack of depth and fatigue also contributed to the late-game collapse makes it worse. Like forward defense, these things were supposed to be strengths.
Portland’s strengths may be hard to come by for the rest of this season. I commented about this to the Blazer’s Edge staff during the game and I’ll share it with you now. Even when they were winning, the Blazers’ eyes seldom reflected it. Whether they were tired, broken, disgusted, or unsure...whatever the cause, their expressions didn’t show much joy. They looked more like dead men walking. The Blazers play their best when they’re exuberant, strutting, with a devil-may-care attitude. That wasn’t in evidence even in the best moments tonight. We’ve seen the shine dull before this game, but it’s getting more pronounced. For all the talk that the Blazers aren’t far away from turning the corner and still believe in their chances, their faces—and in the closing quarters their feet—told a different story tonight. Make of that what you will.
Links and Such
Video Recap, including some nice Nurkic stuff!
Detroit Bad Boys almost certainly had a good time tonight, especially since their TV feed kept playing replays of the Blazers-Pistons 1990 Finals series. That was painful on this end.
The Blazers return home to face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night.